Friday, May 25, 2012

M (1931)

Germany, 109 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Egon Jacobson, Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Photography: Fritz Amo Wagner
Editor: Paul Falkenberg
Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustav Grundgens, Ellen Widman

Back when I started watching late-night movies on broadcast television, shortly after getting out of high school, this seemed like a natural—I loved Peter Lorre from his iconic supporting roles in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, and I appreciated Fritz Lang particularly for Metropolis, which I read about avidly and eventually had the opportunity to see at a nostalgia film club in the suburb where I grew up. That film club occupied the space above a storefront, furnished with folding chairs and a tiny screen, and it showed Max Fleischer cartoons and old movies in 16-millimeter—Freaks, Reefer Madness, White Zombie, and, eventually, M, which by that time had assumed something of the role of a holy grail for me.

Thus I have to count M as the most disappointing movie I have ever seen, an experience I replicated a couple more times (for purposes of verification as much as anything) over the decades. More than once it has worked as a soporific on me, literally putting me to sleep. I've come to have more appreciation for it—the commentary track by Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler in the Criterion DVD was helpful in pointing out its many virtues on my most recent look at it—but it remains one that frankly mystifies me. It seems so promising with Lorre and Lang and especially with all its accolades: greatest German movie of all time (according to the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?), "the best of all serial-killer movies" (Jonathan Rosenbaum), and way high on any number of lists of greatest pictures.

And it's exactly the kind of thing that ought to appeal to me, on paper anyway—part true-crime exercise (even, arguably, police procedural) and part sensational thriller, it's the story of a man, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), who kills little girls after seducing them with candy and toys. It should be creepy and unnerving but it is exactly the opposite—talky and plodding and studiously removed from its most intriguing possibilities. I like it more than Battleship Potemkin but not as much as The Searchers, two more movies I find wildly overrated, but which I hesitate to criticize too energetically, cowed by the widespread regard in which they are held. What are others seeing that I am not?

As I say, there are things about M I have come to appreciate. I like the spindly way it enters into the story and opens it up, with kids announcing the premise in playground rhyme, and the alarmed response of the grown women responding to the rhyme elaborating on that premise, and from there to a crime—the mother of the victim, Elsie Beckman, was the one who maintained her poise in the opening scenes, reassuring and gently commiserating her friend upset by the children.

There are elements in M I can see should work, such as the familiar tune Beckert whistles, which identifies him (Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt). Elsie's abandoned ball rolling to a rest in a field. Her balloon, which Beckert bought for her, abandoned too, caught in a tangle of telephone wires (commentary track: "which suggest the world of modern communications"). But they don't. They feel pro forma, or underdeveloped, or just clumsy somehow.

There are no end of great images, lots of great setups and shots. The edits can be positively cunning. The camera placements and the ways the camera moves are often interesting. The expressionist touches, particularly the use of shadows, are brilliant. Yes, it's worth studying all right. (Walt Whitman: "Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?")

It's dated as much as anything. The insights M offers about paranoia and people turning on one another in such situations—a community paralyzed by fear in the presence of a serial killer among them—are trite, "Twilight Zone"-level business, ditto the concerns about the pernicious evils of mass media. It really gets into trouble when it starts to open up and present a broadly sociological portrait of a city in extremis. It's all right on the police, and it's not even too bad on organized crime. But a formal organization of beggars, really? This is hokum. (It's also the point where the commentary guys start talking about "parables," which I take to mean they don't believe it either.)

It's mostly shot on soundstages and it shows. There's no sense that it takes place in a city of millions. It feels like a TV set. By the way, nothing here makes me interested in anything about artificiality and constructed reality. It moves from crime picture to police procedural in the first half, opening up to the broader sociological profiling. Then the second half is a tiresome, protracted, and largely incoherent (though lovely) chase sequence, followed by an overlong allegorical criminal trial cum kangaroo court with Peter Lorre chewing the scenery.

Setting expectations is the name of the game here, because there's no question M is a handsome and capable production. Here is where the commentary guys were notably helpful. As they say, M is not a thriller, not even close, nor is it much of a mystery or police procedural. It is most accurately a message picture—the message being "protect the children" primarily, with strong streaks of "exterminate the brutes," because at a moment in history when executions in Germany were rare, even as Nazis were beginning to assume more and more power, and a context in which a few similar cases of serial killers had recently played out, the death penalty was a lively social and political issue in Germany.

Put in those terms, it's easy to see my problem. A message picture advocating for the death penalty at a time when (IMHO) Germans had more important things to be thinking about is virtually guaranteed to be lost on me entirely in the first place.

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